The Magic Couch by Guy de Maupassant
The Seine flowed past my house, without a ripple on its surface, and
gleaming in the bright morning sunlight. It was a beautiful, broad,
indolent silver stream, with crimson lights here and there; and on the
opposite side of the river were rows of tall trees that covered all the
bank with an immense wall of verdure.
The sensation of life which is renewed each day, of fresh, happy, loving
life trembled in the leaves, palpitated in the air, was mirrored in the
The postman had just brought my papers, which were handed to me, and I
walked slowly to the river bank in order to read them.
In the first paper I opened I noticed this headline, "Statistics of
Suicides," and I read that more than 8,500 persons had killed themselves
in that year.
In a moment I seemed to see them! I saw this voluntary and hideous
massacre of the despairing who were weary of life. I saw men bleeding,
their jaws fractured, their skulls cloven, their breasts pierced by a
bullet, slowly dying, alone in a little room in a hotel, giving no
thought to their wound, but thinking only of their misfortunes.
I saw others seated before a tumbler in which some matches were soaking,
or before a little bottle with a red label.
They would look at it fixedly without moving; then they would drink and
await the result; then a spasm would convulse their cheeks and draw their
lips together; their eyes would grow wild with terror, for they did not
know that the end would be preceded by so much suffering.
They rose to their feet, paused, fell over and with their hands pressed
to their stomachs they felt their internal organs on fire, their entrails
devoured by the fiery liquid, before their minds began to grow dim.
I saw others hanging from a nail in the wall, from the fastening of the
window, from a hook in the ceiling, from a beam in the garret, from a
branch of a tree amid the evening rain. And I surmised all that had
happened before they hung there motionless, their tongues hanging out of
their mouths. I imagined the anguish of their heart, their final
hesitation, their attempts to fasten the rope, to determine that it was
secure, then to pass the noose round their neck and to let themselves
I saw others lying on wretched beds, mothers with their little children,
old men dying of hunger, young girls dying for love, all rigid,
suffocated, asphyxiated, while in the center of the room the brasier
still gave forth the fumes of charcoal.
And I saw others walking at night along the deserted bridges. These were
the most sinister. The water flowed under the arches with a low sound.
They did not see it . . . they guessed at it from its cool breath! They
longed for it and they feared it. They dared not do it! And yet, they
must. A distant clock sounded the hour and, suddenly, in the vast silence
of the night, there was heard the splash of a body falling into the
river, a scream or two, the sound of hands beating the water, and all was
still. Sometimes, even, there was only the sound of the falling body when
they had tied their arms down or fastened a stone to their feet. Oh, the
poor things, the poor things, the poor things, how I felt their anguish,
how I died in their death! I went through all their wretchedness; I
endured in one hour all their tortures. I knew all the sorrows that had
led them to this, for I know the deceitful infamy of life, and no one has
felt it more than I have.
How I understood them, these who weak, harassed by misfortune, having
lost those they loved, awakened from the dream of a tardy compensation,
from the illusion of another existence where God will finally be just,
after having been ferocious, and their minds disabused of the mirages of
happiness, have given up the fight and desire to put an end to this
ceaseless tragedy, or this shameful comedy.
Suicide! Why, it is the strength of those whose strength is exhausted,
the hope of those who no longer believe, the sublime courage of the
conquered! Yes, there is at least one door to this life we can always
open and pass through to the other side. Nature had an impulse of pity;
she did not shut us up in prison. Mercy for the despairing!
As for those who are simply disillusioned, let them march ahead with free
soul and quiet heart. They have nothing to fear since they may take their
leave; for behind them there is always this door that the gods of our
illusions cannot even lock.
I thought of this crowd of suicides: more than eight thousand five
hundred in one year. And it seemed to me that they had combined to send
to the world a prayer, to utter a cry of appeal, to demand something that
should come into effect later when we understood things better. It seemed
to me that all these victims, their throats cut, poisoned, hung,
asphyxiated, or drowned, all came together, a frightful horde, like
citizens to the polls, to say to society:
"Grant us, at least, a gentle death! Help us to die, you who will not
help us to live! See, we are numerous, we have the right to speak in
these days of freedom, of philosophic independence and of popular
suffrage. Give to those who renounce life the charity of a death that
will not be repugnant nor terrible."
I began to dream, allowing my fancy to roam at will in weird and
mysterious fashion on this subject.
I seemed to be all at once in a beautiful city. It was Paris; but at what
period? I walked about the streets, looking at the houses, the theaters,
the public buildings, and presently found myself in a square where I
remarked a large building; very handsome, dainty and attractive. I was
surprised on reading on the facade this inscription in letters of gold,
Oh, the weirdness of waking dreams where the spirit soars into a world of
unrealities and possibilities! Nothing astonishes one, nothing shocks
one; and the unbridled fancy makes no distinction between the comic and
I approached the building where footmen in knee-breeches were seated in
the vestibule in front of a cloak-room as they do at the entrance of a
I entered out of curiosity. One of the men rose and said:
"What does monsieur wish?"
"I wish to know what building this is."
"Then would monsieur like me to take him to the Secretary of the Bureau?"
I hesitated, and asked:
"But will not that disturb him?"
"Oh, no, monsieur, he is here to receive those who desire information."
"Well, lead the way."
He took me through corridors where old gentlemen were chatting, and
finally led me into a beautiful office, somewhat somber, furnished
throughout in black wood. A stout young man with a corporation was
writing a letter as he smoked a cigar, the fragrance of which gave
evidence of its quality.
He rose. We bowed to each other, and as soon as the footman had retired
"What can I do for you?"
"Monsieur," I replied, "pardon my curiosity. I had never seen this
establishment. The few words inscribed on the facade filled me with
astonishment, and I wanted to know what was going on here."
He smiled before replying, then said in a low tone with a complacent air:
"Mon Dieu, monsieur, we put to death in a cleanly and gentle—I do
not venture to say agreeable manner those persons who desire to die."
I did not feel very shocked, for it really seemed to me natural and
right. What particularly surprised me was that on this planet, with its
low, utilitarian, humanitarian ideals, selfish and coercive of all true
freedom, any one should venture on a similar enterprise, worthy of an
"How did you get the idea?" I asked.
"Monsieur," he replied, "the number of suicides increased so enormously
during the five years succeeding the world exposition of 1889 that some
measures were urgently needed. People killed themselves in the streets,
at fetes, in restaurants, at the theater, in railway carriages, at the
receptions held by the President of the Republic, everywhere. It was not
only a horrid sight for those who love life, as I do, but also a bad
example for children. Hence it became necessary to centralize suicides."
"What caused this suicidal epidemic?"
"I do not know. The fact is, I believe, the world is growing old. People
begin to see things clearly and they are getting disgruntled. It is the
same to-day with destiny as with the government, we have found out what
it is; people find that they are swindled in every direction, and they
just get out of it all. When one discovers that Providence lies, cheats,
robs, deceives human beings just as a plain Deputy deceives his
constituents, one gets angry, and as one cannot nominate a fresh
Providence every three months as we do with our privileged
representatives, one just gets out of the whole thing, which is decidedly
"Oh, as for me, I am not complaining."
"Will you inform me how you carry on this establishment?"
"With pleasure. You may become a member when you please. It is a club."
"Yes, monsieur, founded by the most eminent men in the country, by men of
the highest intellect and brightest intelligence. And," he added,
laughing heartily, "I swear to you that every one gets a great deal of
enjoyment out of it."
"In this place?"
"Yes, in this place."
"You surprise me."
"Mon Dieu, they enjoy themselves because they have not that fear of death
which is the great killjoy in all our earthly pleasures."
"But why should they be members of this club if they do not kill
"One may be a member of the club without being obliged for that reason to
"I will explain. In view of the enormous increase in suicides, and of the
hideous spectacle they presented, a purely benevolent society was formed
for the protection of those in despair, which placed at their disposal
the facilities for a peaceful, painless, if not unforeseen death."
"Who can have authorized such an institution?"
"General Boulanger during his brief tenure of power. He could never
refuse anything. However, that was the only good thing he did. Hence, a
society was formed of clear-sighted, disillusioned skeptics who desired
to erect in the heart of Paris a kind of temple dedicated to the contempt
for death. This place was formerly a dreaded spot that no one ventured to
approach. Then its founders, who met together here, gave a grand
inaugural entertainment with Mmes. Sarah Bernhardt, Judic, Theo, Granier,
and twenty others, and Mme. de Reske, Coquelin, Mounet-Sully, Paulus,
etc., present, followed by concerts, the comedies of Dumas, of Meilhac,
Halevy and Sardon. We had only one thing to mar it, one drama by Becque
which seemed sad, but which subsequently had a great success at the
Comedie-Francaise. In fact all Paris came. The enterprise was launched."
"In the midst of the festivities! What a funereal joke!"
"Not at all. Death need not be sad, it should be a matter of
indifference. We made death cheerful, crowned it with flowers, covered it
with perfume, made it easy. One learns to aid others through example; one
can see that it is nothing."
"I can well understand that they should come to the entertainments; but
did they come to . . . Death?"
"Not at first; they were afraid."
"Many of them?"
"In crowds. We have had more than forty in a day. One finds hardly any
more drowned bodies in the Seine."
"Who was the first?"
"A club member."
"As a sacrifice to the cause?"
"I don't think so. A man who was sick of everything, a 'down and out' who
had lost heavily at baccarat for three months."
"The second was an Englishman, an eccentric. We then advertised in the
papers, we gave an account of our methods, we invented some attractive
instances. But the great impetus was given by poor people."
"How do you go to work?"
"Would you like to see? I can explain at the same time."
He took his hat, opened the door, allowed me to precede him, and we
entered a card room, where men sat playing as they, play in all gambling
places. They were chatting cheerfully, eagerly. I have seldom seen such a
jolly, lively, mirthful club.
As I seemed surprised, the secretary said:
"Oh, the establishment has an unheard of prestige. All the smart people
all over the world belong to it so as to appear as though they held death
in scorn. Then, once they get here, they feel obliged to be cheerful that
they may not appear to be afraid. So they joke and laugh and talk
flippantly, they are witty and they become so. At present it is certainly
the most frequented and the most entertaining place in Paris. The women
are even thinking of building an annex for themselves."
"And, in spite of all this, you have many suicides in the house?"
"As I said, about forty or fifty a day. Society people are rare, but poor
devils abound. The middle class has also a large contingent.
"And how . . . do they do?"
"They are asphyxiated . . . very slowly."
"In what manner?"
"A gas of our own invention. We have the patent. On the other side of the
building are the public entrances—three little doors opening on
small streets. When a man or a woman present themselves they are
interrogated. Then they are offered assistance, aid, protection. If a
client accepts, inquiries are made; and sometimes we have saved their
"Where do you get your money?"
"We have a great deal. There are a large number of shareholders. Besides
it is fashionable to contribute to the establishment. The names of the
donors are published in Figaro. Then the suicide of every rich man costs
a thousand francs. And they look as if they were lying in state. It costs
the poor nothing."
"How can you tell who is poor?"
"Oh, oh, monsieur, we can guess! And, besides, they must bring a
certificate of indigency from the commissary of police of their district.
If you knew how distressing it is to see them come in! I visited their
part of our building once only, and I will never go again. The place
itself is almost as good as this part, almost as luxurious and
comfortable; but they themselves . . . they themselves!!! If you could
see them arriving, the old men in rags coming to die; persons who have
been dying of misery for months, picking up their food at the edges of
the curbstone like dogs in the street; women in rags, emaciated, sick,
paralyzed, incapable of making a living, who say to us after they have
told us their story: 'You see that things cannot go on like that, as I
cannot work any longer or earn anything.' I saw one woman of eighty-seven
who had lost all her children and grandchildren, and who for the last six
weeks had been sleeping out of doors. It made me ill to hear of it. Then
we have so many different cases, without counting those who say nothing,
but simply ask: 'Where is it?' These are admitted at once and it is all
over in a minute."
With a pang at my heart I repeated:
"And . . . where is it?"
"Here," and he opened a door, adding:
"Go in; this is the part specially reserved for club members, and the one
least used. We have so far had only eleven annihilations here."
"Ah! You call that an . . . annihilation!"
"Yes, monsieur. Go in."
I hesitated. At length I went in. It was a wide corridor, a sort of
greenhouse in which panes of glass of pale blue, tender pink and delicate
green gave the poetic charm of landscapes to the inclosing walls. In this
pretty salon there were divans, magnificent palms, flowers, especially
roses of balmy fragrance, books on the tables, the Revue des Deuxmondes,
cigars in government boxes, and, what surprised me, Vichy pastilles in a
As I expressed my surprise, my guide said:
"Oh, they often come here to chat." He continued: "The public corridors
are similar, but more simply furnished."
In reply to a question of mine, he pointed to a couch covered with creamy
crepe de Chine with white embroidery, beneath a large shrub of unknown
variety at the foot of which was a circular bed of mignonette.
The secretary added in a lower tone:
"We change the flower and the perfume at will, for our gas, which is
quite imperceptible, gives death the fragrance of the suicide's favorite
flower. It is volatilized with essences. Would you like to inhale it for
"'No, thank you," I said hastily, "not yet . . . ."
He began to laugh.
"Oh, monsieur, there is no danger. I have tried it myself several times."
I was afraid he would think me a coward, and I said:
"Well, I'll try it."
"Stretch yourself out on the 'endormeuse."'
A little uneasy I seated myself on the low couch covered with crepe de
Chine and stretched myself full length, and was at once bathed in a
delicious odor of mignonette. I opened my mouth in order to breathe it
in, for my mind had already become stupefied and forgetful of the past
and was a prey, in the first stages of asphyxia, to the enchanting
intoxication of a destroying and magic opium.
Some one shook me by the arm.
"Oh, oh, monsieur," said the secretary, laughing, "it looks to me as if
you were almost caught."
But a voice, a real voice, and no longer a dream voice, greeted me with
the peasant intonation:
"Good morning, m'sieu. How goes it?"
My dream was over. I saw the Seine distinctly in the sunlight, and,
coming along a path, the garde champetre of the district, who with his
right hand touched his kepi braided in silver. I replied:
"Good morning, Marinel. Where are you going?"
"I am going to look at a drowned man whom they fished up near the
Morillons. Another who has thrown himself into the soup. He even took off
his trousers in order to tie his legs together with them."
his trousers in order to tie his legs together with them."